When Sue Lewis Bodner arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1979 to join the Church of the Saviour, she had never heard of L’Arche. Nor did she know anyone with an intellectual disability.
But she was soon scraping wallpaper and painting a row house on Ontario Road to prepare it for a group of people who would move in together to create a radical new kind of community—one where the weakest members would be given a place of honor, where the spiritual depth of those once considered sub-human would bring her right into God’s lap, where she would learn the true meaning of home.
What drew Sue in to L’Arche and kept her coming back was observing the faith of those who had intellectual disabilities, known simply as core people because they form the center of the community. “I’ve been all over the map with Christianity,” Sue said. When she came to L’Arche she thought, “This is it.”
“When you sit down at the dinner table and pass the candle—that is the human manifestation of God’s presence among us. When I have theological issues, L’Arche is what brings me back.”
While the Bodners never lived in a L’Arche home, their lives were intricately interwoven with the lives of the core people and assistants. “L’Arche was home to my kids and me,” Sue said. Her children, Gail and Ben, are 15 months apart in age and when they were young their father worked long hours and frequently travelled. “When it would start to get dark, I’d put them in the stroller and walk over to Euclid House. We’d eat dinner, and the core people would play with them. That was huge for us.”
For ten years Sue served as an “accompanier” for the Euclid assistants. She met with them as a group once a month and helped them work through the challenges of living and working together. Now she is a personal accompanier and meets with individual assistants to provide a listening ear and the wisdom she’s gained in being part of L’Arche for more than 30 years.
“Assistants bring their own wounds,” she said. “Living together—whether in a community like L’Arche or in a family—is not easy. The presence of the core people calls you to keep trying, and you can see the benefit of making it work.”
And, in spite of the challenges of living together, she learned early on that being with other people is better than being by yourself.
Sue’s educational background is in home economics, but it was really L’Arche that taught her how to create a home. Growing up, the only guests her family had over for meals were her grandparents. In L’Arche, a parade of guests came through nearly every night of the week, regardless of how clean the house or if a special meal was ready. When her family moved from D.C. to Arlington, Sue determined that her house would be like a L’Arche house—always open.
“I’m not a cook, but there is always food,” she said (over a delicious spread of coffee cake, fresh fruit, and tea). “I want people to feel they can just come over.”
In order to make it easier to host, she renovated her home to include an apartment and a large open-concept kitchen/living/dining room. The apartment has now been home to another family for 14 years, and Sue hosts other people for several weeks or months as she hears of needs. Sue saw it all happen in L’Arche—the coordination of schedules, sharing space with people who are different, and making meals.
Now, as L’Arche’s founding members are aging, Sue is thinking ahead to the future.
“Fifty years from now, I hope there will be more L’Arche homes,” she says. “This is why I want part of my estate to go to L’Arche. I want to contribute to something that will visibly go on and make sure that people have homes.”
Ultimately, within L’Arche’s homes lies a seed of hope that people can see each other as equally valued. “L’Arche has shown us how to live as ‘us’ regardless of racial, socio-economic, or religious backgrounds. In L’Arche, all the unimportant stuff falls away and you can see so clearly.”
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Note: This is the second story in a series titled Where are they now? Life after L’Arche, which features the impact L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C., had on former assistants’ careers, faith, relationships, and lifestyles. Read the first story, From Failure to Community, here.